Social Psychological Skill: A Matter of Personality?

How personality traits help people understand situations

Posted Sep 17, 2018

Social psychology has long been concerned with understanding how the features of a situation can affect a person's behavior. Social psychologists have long claimed that most people underestimate or discount entirely how their behavior is influenced by situational factors because they prefer to believe that their behavior is controlled by their personal characteristics. Interestingly, a recent study introduced the concept of social psychological skill, the ability to accurately predict how people in general feel, think, and behave in different social contexts and situations (Gollwitzer & Bargh, 2018). Through a series of experiments, it was shown that people differ in how well they can intuitively grasp social psychological concepts, even if they have never studied social psychology. Furthermore, people high in this skill could accurately explain how someone would behave in a famous experiment used to test the fundamental attribution error, a concept some consider to be at the heart of social psychology. I find this an intriguing development that strikes me as ironic — in a field that has traditionally discounted the importance of individual differences, it turns out that individual differences may be at the core of who can understand the field’s key concepts.

Historically, the distinctive perspective of social psychology has been that although people are intuitive psychologists, their intuitions about why people behave the way they do are often wrong. These errors occur because of a variety of cognitive errors and biases. In particular, people are supposed to be prone to “lay dispositionism,” that is, people overestimate the importance of a person’s personality characteristics and generally fail to fully appreciate the power of situational forces that constrain their behavior (Ross, Lepper, & Ward, 2010). Hence, social psychology has often focused on non-obvious findings that go against people’s intuitive expectations. It is therefore rather striking that a recent study has found that some people can intuitively grasp social psychological concepts even if they do not appear to have studied the subject (Gollwitzer & Bargh, 2018). Furthermore, this ability is associated with certain personality dispositions. Hence, even though social psychologists such as Lee Ross and colleagues (2010) have argued “that stable personal traits or dispositions matter less than lay observers assume,” it turns out that some of these dispositions may be important in understanding situational influences on behavior.

The article that introduces the concept of social psychological skill reports six experiments to test the concept. The authors developed a test to assess social psychological skill that consists of true/false questions based on key social psychological findings that have been replicated at least once, such as social loafing, the bystander effect, deindividuation, outgroup bias, misattribution, social projection, and self-serving bias. For example, an item assessing whether a person understands the concept of social loafing was, “In most cases, people expend less effort when in a group than when alone.” The studies found that there are reliable individual differences in how well people do on the test, with some showing very high levels of social psychological skill, and other very low levels. As one might expect, people who had taken psychology classes tended to do better on this test, although those who had read pop psychology books did not. However, two further experiments showed that even when taking into account whether someone had studied psychology, there were still reliable individual differences in social psychological skill that were related to both cognitive ability and personality traits. More specifically, higher social psychological skill was related to higher intelligence, intellectual curiosity (i.e. traits including need for cognition and openness to experience), introversion, and “melancholy,” a set of characteristics comprising neuroticism, loneliness, low self-esteem, and low satisfaction with life. Furthermore, in an additional experiment, the authors found that these characteristics still predicted social psychological skill even when controlling for a person’s ability to take science-related tests. That is, social psychological skill is not just a function of being able to answer science-related questions in general but is a distinct skill in itself.

Wikimedia commons
Source: Wikimedia commons

The authors explained that intelligence and intellectual curiosity are both associated with reduced cognitive bias, that is, being willing and able to think carefully about things and avoid being misled by irrelevant information or intuitively appealing but incorrect assumptions. Furthermore, introversion and “melancholy” are associated with reduced motivational biases, that is, a reduced tendency to see people (including oneself) in an overly positive and flattering light and to see things more realistically. One might say that people with introverted and melancholy traits are “sadder but wiser.” Therefore, some people might have better insight into social psychological principles because their intellectual and personality traits reduce their cognitive and motivational biases.

The author’s sixth and final experiment tested whether social psychological skill could actually predict how people would respond in an experiment involving the famous fundamental attribution error. This is important because the test used to assess social psychological skill is a test of knowledge and it is well known that people do not always apply their knowledge in their judgments and behavior. Additionally, the fundamental attribution error has long been considered one of the key findings in social psychology. It refers to the phenomenon where people attribute the causes of a person’s behavior to their internal dispositions (e.g., what they really believe) rather than external situational influences (e.g., being instructed to behave a certain way). According to the eminent social psychologist Lee Ross, the fundamental attribution error “forms the foundation for the field of social psychology” (Gollwitzer & Bargh, 2018). To be fair, other social psychologists have been more critical in their assessment of the so-called fundamental attribution error (e.g. that is not fundamental and is not always an error), and one even went so far as to say that the “fundamental attribution error is dead” (Gawronski, 2004). Personally, I think it is highly overrated at best, and have criticised it in two previous blog posts (here and here).

Putting that aside, the authors of the study reasoned that if social psychological skill influences one’s judgment of the causes of behavior, then someone high in this skill should be less prone to exhibit the fundamental attribution error (whatever it really is). To test this, they reproduced a classic experimental paradigm in which participants were told they would be reading an essay about affirmative action in college admissions. Half of the participants were told that the writer had freely chosen whether to write a pro- or anti-affirmative action essay. The other half were told that the writer had been forced to write a pro- or an anti-affirmative action essay. In each of these conditions, participants then read an essay that was either pro- or an anti-affirmative action (i.e., there were essay four conditions in all). Participants were then asked to rate how much they thought the essay writer was personally either in favor of or against affirmative action. In the original classic experiment on the fundamental attribution error, participants were inclined to consider that the essay reflected the writer’s actual views, regardless of whether they were forced to write it or did so of their own choice. Social psychologists have interpreted this to mean that people who think this way underestimate the influence of situational factors, i.e., a person who is forced to write an essay arguing for or against something may or may not really believe what they have written; instead, they are just doing what they are told. This is the nature of the fundamental attribution error. However, in the new version of the experiment, people high in social psychological skill would be expected to have a better appreciation of the situational factors influencing the essay writer’s behavior. And this is what the authors found: people very high in social psychological skill rated the essay writer as less pro- or anti-affirmative action when they were forced to write the essay than when they had a free choice. On the other hand, participants who were very low in social psychological skill actually rated someone who was forced to write an essay as more pro- or anti-affirmative action than one who had a free choice. Hence, those who were high in social psychological skill were less prone to commit the fundamental attribution error and showed more appreciation of situational factors influencing someone’s behavior.

To summarise the implications of the findings on social psychological skill, to appreciate the fundamental attribution error, the phenomenon that forms “the foundation for the field of social psychology,” it helps to be high in social psychological skill. Yet people high in social psychological skill tend to have certain specific personality dispositions, something that social psychologists such as Lee Ross have argued are not that important for understanding human behavior. Hence, this study reveals a fundamental irony. Social psychologists have historically treated person variables (dispositions) and situation variables as competing explanations for human behavior, arguing that naïve laypeople overestimate the importance of the former (i.e., “lay dispositionism”) and underappreciate the latter. Yet, it seems that certain personality traits may facilitate layperson’s understanding of situational influences on behavior. Hence, far from being unimportant, dispositions may lie at the heart of social psychology.


Gawronski, B. (2004). Theory-based bias correction in dispositional inference: The fundamental attribution error is dead, long live the correspondence bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 183-217. doi:10.1080/10463280440000026

Gollwitzer, A., & Bargh, J. A. (2018). Social Psychological Skill and Its Correlates. Social Psychology, 49(2), 88-102. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000332

Ross, L., Lepper, M., & Ward, A. (2010). History of Social Psychology: Insights, Challenges, and Contributions to Theory and Application. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology (5 ed., Vol. One): John Wiley and Sons.